Ophelia had been planning to send us to the past all along. There was no time to think, no time to worry over Ink. I turned and fled, hoping that if I could make it outside, I could figure something out, some way out of this mess.
Rainsong was waiting outside. He was leaning on a sword stained black with oil; the bow and its explosive arrows apparently gone. “He lives! Glad to see you made it, kid—”
“Run!” I cried, but I was too late. An arrow hit him in the chest, and he too was gone. I turned back for a split second and caught sight of Ophelia and Hondo backlit in the pyramid’s entrance. Were they in league with each other? I couldn’t say.
He was the only one left. I had to find him. Sure, the robot was a little crazy, but crazy help was better than no help at all. I ducked behind a stunted tree, heart hammering in my chest.
“You are one stone-cold lady,” I heard Hondo say to Ophelia.
“Shut up and help me find him,” the former queen snapped in reply.
“This is your show,” Hondo replied. “I’m just repaying my debt to Theus.”
Funny way of helping, I thought.
“He hasn’t been reunited with his sister yet,” Ophelia pointed out. I heard footsteps crunching over dry leaves. She’d left the pyramid.
“Yeah,” Hondo conceded, “but I gave him a nudge in the right direction. That’s all I can do.” I could tell from the way he pitched his voice he still stood near the great spaceship.
“You hope it’s the right direction.” Her voice was close, but that could be to my advantage. Running away wouldn’t work. We were in the middle of a field. With a bow, putting distance between us would only help Ophelia.
“All we ever do is hope,” he replied. “Hope we’re moving down the right path. Hope everything will work out, that we’re doing what we should be doing.”
I quit listening, focusing on the sound of Ophelia’s footsteps. She couldn’t be more than a few steps away.
I have three people to find now, I realized. Two friends in the past, and a sister in the future. The thought was so overwhelming I was nearly paralyzed.
No, I told myself. You have to move.
“Victory is ours!” Gareth cried from several yards off.
“No!” I cried, inadvertently revealing myself.
“Forgive me, master,” Ophelia said. Her third arrow clanged off of Gareth’s armor, and the robot was gone with a whumph as air rushed to fill the space he’d vacated.
Now I was truly alone.
There was no one within a hundred years or a million miles that I could count on.
And I’d revealed myself.
Out of options, I charged toward Ophelia, sword ready. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I had to fight this. I couldn’t just go quietly, not when a chance to find my sister might be back in the city behind me.
“Where are you sending them?” I cried as I burst toward her. “Why are you doing this?”
She had an arrow ready for me, but I was too close. I shoved the bow away and brought my knee up, into her gut. She doubled over, coughing. I snatched at her bow. The fingers of my free hand closed over it, and I dashed a few yards away.
She climbed to her feet and rushed toward me, but I held up my sword to fend her off. I placed one end of the bow against the ground. My first instinct was to snap it by bending it, but bows are made to be flexible, it might take too long or not even work. I raised my sword instead, ready to bring it down hard.
“Theus, please no! That’s—”
I dropped my sword with an angry snarl and sliced the bow in two.
“—A family heirloom,” Ophelia said, her shoulders slumping a little. A light breeze tugged at her cloak.
And then she pulled another bow out of her quiver and shot me in the leg.
I didn’t vanish. It was just a normal arrow. I hit the dirt hard, blood pulsing out of my thigh. It didn’t seem like a serious wound, but it hurt.
In the Vault she’d been happy she had five arrows left, but had only needed four to launch Moonstones at myself and my friends. Four to fire at us, one to disable me.
But why not just send me back like the others? I clutched at my leg, trying to staunch the steady trickle of blood. The arrow was stuck in the side of my leg. I knew there was an important artery there, but Ophelia had placed her shot well enough to miss it.
“I do what I must,” Ophelia said, as if in answer to my earlier question. “For my people. I may not have a kingdom anymore, but I will always be a queen. I would die for them. I would betray for them. The End took them all away, and I will do anything, anything to rescue them.”
“I’m sorry about your leg, but I don’t have the element of surprise with you like I did the others. I couldn’t risk missing the shot. You are a worthy opponent, Prometheus Jones. I wish it could have been different. We’re on the same side. Someday you’ll see that.”
She nocked her final arrow. At its tip was the next-to-last Moonstone.
“Help me!” I cried to Hondo, tears stinging my eyes. “Please!”
“I’m sorry, Theus,” he replied. “This was always going to happen. This is the past. It was always set in stone.”
I turned back to Ophelia. “Please! I trusted you!”
I had failed again. Perhaps even more miserably than last time.
“I know,” she replied. She was crying herself now. “But the Dawn insists this is the only way for me to find my people.” She took two steps closer, making the shot even more certain.
“I’m not going,” I said. I reached for my sword. I’d dropped it in the dirt when I’d been struck down.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “But I’m not giving you a choice. I’ll see you soon. I hope you can forgive me.”
I had a tight grip on my sword. I struggled to stand, but I couldn’t put any weight on my wounded leg. I squirmed and managed to stagger to my feet, relying on my uninjured side to keep me upright.
Useless. A vain gesture. All I accomplished was spilling more of my own blood. A sob tried to force its way out of my throat, but I choked it down. I didn’t want to break down, not here in front of Ophelia and Hondo. Not ever, if I could help it.
I glanced back at the city. The dark silhouette of a ruined civilization. I’d been so close. Like a fool I’d let my chance slip by. “Lena,” I whispered.
And then Ophelia’s final arrow struck me in the chest, and the Crossroads World vanished. It wasn’t like before, where I just disappeared from one time and appeared in another. There was a feeling of falling that made my stomach lurch, and the world went black for several seconds.
I appeared in the middle of a desert. I could feel the lingering pain from the impact of the Moonstone arrow. Tall dunes rose around me like ocean waves sculpted from sand; a light breeze ruffling their caps. Fine grit dusted my face and stuck to the bloodstains on my worn trousers.
“Where . . . ?” I wondered aloud.
These Moonstones hadn’t just moved me in time. I could feel it, this wasn’t the same place.
I tried to walk, but my leg buckled, and I fell.
“Ink!” I called out. As I yelled, Hondo’s words came to mind.
“All we ever do is hope.”
A face appeared from around one of the nearby dunes. I caught sight of dark fur and pointed ears. Not one of my friends.
“Tsk-tsk-tsk,” the creature tutted scornfully. “What’s this what’s this?” It spoke almost too fast for me to understand.
The creature stepped out, revealing itself to be a cat. Or at least, an alien who looked a lot like a cat. It had big eyes with slitted pupils, white whiskers, and a little, pink button nose. The cat-creature wore a simple, skirt-like garment and no shirt. I thought they looked familiar, from history books. The clothes, not the cat.
“Injured ourselves, have we?” it said.
“No,” I groaned. “I was shot.”
“Same thing, says Tonna,” it replied with a wide grin. I was getting better at keeping up with its rapid speech. It stepped forward and knelt to inspect the wound. “Next time try dodging.”
“Ha ha,” I replied. “Are you Tonna?”
“Yep yep, that’s me that’s me,” it replied. “Well, slave, come with Tonna to the city.”
“Slave?” I asked.
“Yes, Tonna will save your leg from getting chopped off, and you’ll be her slave, yes? Tonna tried to take the swordsman lizards, but they were too strong. You’re perfect!”
“You saw . . . wait, lizards?” Maybe the cat-creature didn’t know what a toad was? I took solace in knowing my friends were here. I hadn’t exactly had time to worry, but it had occurred to me they could have been sent to a completely different era.
“Yes, one with a smooth, smooth voice. He was terrifying, so so fast with his sword!” That had to be Ink. “And a silly lizard with a strange helmet and a rude way.”
I chuckled. “Sounds like my friends. Can you take me to them?”
The cat-creature shrugged. “They went to the city. Everyone goes to the city. Tonna will take you to the city too, slave.”
“Okay, thanks, Tonna. But I can’t be your slave.”
“You’ll love it! Tonna will be a kind master!”
I sighed. My leg hurt, and I’d had a truly terrible day. We could argue about it later. “Where’s the city?”
Tonna the Cat helped me up and put an arm over his shoulders to help me limp along. I sheathed my sword. The cat didn’t seem at all bothered about letting me stay armed.
We stepped through a slender pathway between two dunes. The ground sloped down toward a city that spread near an enormous river. My heart skipped a beat.
I knew exactly what planet I was on at a glance.
It wasn’t the broad river that gave it away, with its birds and plants flourishing along the banks. It wasn’t the tall, stone pyramids rising in the distance. It wasn’t the people in the bustling marketplace below, a comfortable mix of humans, bird-men, and cat-men.
It was the Moon.
The Moon that had shone from above for every night of my childhood hung in the sky above, bigger than I’d ever seen it. There could be no mistaking its distinct, face-like appearance, and no mistaking exactly where I was.
Somehow, impossibly, I was not only in the distant past; I was in Ancient Egypt.
I was on Earth.
“We need to watch out for Endmen,” Hondo said. “They’re almost certain to be on board, guarding the ship and preparing for take-off.”
The interior of the spaceship was brightly lit, almost glaringly so after the dim hustle across the field outside. We stood in a corridor big enough for an Emissary to walk without hunching. It led out of sight, to the right and around a corner just to the left.
“Endmen?” I asked.
“They’re like little Emissaries,” Ophelia explained, looking disgusted. “Awful things in the shape of men.”
I tried to combine an Emissary with a man in my head and got enough nightmare fuel for a lot of bad dreams.
“Let’s… go fast?” I said haltingly.
“Yeah, fast is good,” Hondo said. He suddenly began to rummage through my backpack.
“What are you doing?” I asked, trying to shimmy away from the man. He used one hand to keep the backpack in place, so I could only squirm unless I wanted to shrug the bag off.
“I can’t let the End see my face. He’s got my future self and the rest of our crew. Probably should have done this outside…”
“Ugh, this will have to do,” he said, pulling out a cloth napkin in a plastic bag. He tore slits in the thin fabric with his thumbs and wrapped it around his eyes to create a crude mask.
“You look ridiculous,” Ophelia said, grinning.
“Is that really going to fool anyone?” I asked.
“Let’s hope so,” he replied. “And get moving,”
“Are you sure you don’t want to stop and knit some socks?” Ophelia asked with a smirk.
“Tempting,” Hondo replied, glancing at his bare feet.
“I’d take a pair of fresh socks,” I said. I could feel the cold metal on the soles of my feet.
The ship hummed with life. Harsh lighting illuminated bronze walls decorated with symbols I didn’t understand.
“Are those…” I couldn’t remember the word. Pictures that were used as words. It was on the tip of my tongue. Most of them looked like birds.
“Which way?” Ophelia asked Hondo, ignoring my question.
I reminded myself this was no time to study the walls. It felt strange to be back in a spaceship. Despite having traveled to nearly half a dozen worlds in the last week, this was my first time on a spaceship since I’d stepped out of the Endeavor so long ago. It felt strange, like returning to civilization after a trek in the wilderness.
Hondo glanced back and forth, softly clucking his tongue as he studied both hallways.
“We can hear you thinking,” Ophelia said.
“The Vault is in the center of the ship,” Hondo said. “The Moonstones should be stored there. “This way.” He waved a hand toward the left-side corridor.
“All right, let’s move out,” the former queen replied, starting in the direction indicated. “Keep your weapons ready.”
Hondo made a throat-clearing sound and held out his empty hands. I drew my sword and followed the two. It occurred to me that Hondo could be leading us into a trap. I’d never gotten the sense he was—and obviously neither had Ophelia—but it had to be considered.
I watched his exposed back as he walked ahead of me. Scars traced lines across his shoulder-blades.
The second Ophelia rounded the corner she stopped and drew back, her bow held up and ready. She turned back to us, dark hair flashing in a wave as she snapped her head our way.
“Endmen,” she hissed.
“Guarding the entrance to the Vault,” Hondo said. He kept his voice low but he didn’t sound as concerned as Ophelia.
“Let’s take them out,” I said.
“With a sword and a bow?” Hondo replied. “Be my guest.”
“Don’t you have any more of those exploding arrows?” I asked Ophelia.
“I gave them to Mister Toad,” she replied. She leaned her head back against the wall.
“Don’t spend too long thinking it over,” Hondo said. “A patrol will stroll through here any minute now.”
“I thought you had a plan,” I said to him.
“To get inside,” Hondo said. “I didn’t know you two were going to give up all your firepower.”
He sighed. “I suppose now’s as good a time as any.” He pulled a small, silver laser pistol out of the waistband of his shorts and brought it up, pointing it around the corner.
Ophelia jumped and pointed her bow at the man, eyes wide. “You’ve had that the whole time?” she asked, her voice a hair too loud for comfort.
“Of course,” he said with a sly grin. “I always have a backup strategy.”
Ophelia lowered her bow, but only halfway. “Lead the way then,” she said, lowering her voice.
He’d had us all fooled, feigning helplessness the whole time when he could have easily drawn a laser on us the whole time.
Keeping as close to the wall as he could, Hondo squeezed past Ophelia and glanced around the corner. We followed. I could see two dark shapes close to the wall on the right. Endmen.
“Okay,” he whispered. “I’ve got a plan.”
“Heard that before,” Ophelia said, rolling her eyes.
“Fire an arrow, will you?” Hondo asked.
“Why—” Ophelia seemed to grasp what Hondo was after. She raised her bow and fired an arrow around the corner. Fired poorly, It plinked against the metal floor some ways past the two Endmen. One of the figures turned to track the sound of the arrow.
The other swung to look right at us.
“Wow,” Hondo said. “I really thought that would work.” He raised his pistol and fired wildly at the closer Endman. Two of the shots went wild, but one glanced off the Endman’s shoulder.
It stepped away from the wall. The Endman was nightmares brought to life. At first glance, they looked like the Grim Reaper. Both stood tall with hoods draped over skeletal bodies. I caught sight of birdlike talons gripping the floor. Another pair of claws gripped scythe-like weapons, completing their Death-like appearance.
Hondo fired on the closer Endman. Its head snapped back, shooting a fountain of sparks into the air. I saw what might have been a wickedly curved beak reach out of the hood’s shadow.
The other one hurtled right at us.
It moved faster than I’d ever seen a robot move. Startled, Ophelia launched an arrow into its chest that ricocheted harmlessly away.
Hondo fired his pistol again, but missed. He said a bad word, and the robot was on us, raising its claw-like hands.
I closed my eyes and swung my sword as hard as I could in a horizontal arc. The blade caught in the monster’s neck. Hondo fired a third shot into its chest. The Endman collapsed in a sparking heap, a dry hiss crackling from the depths of its hooded face. Its scythe stopped inches from cutting into my shoulder.
It fell to the ground, pulling me down with it. Leaning awkwardly over the dead robot, I tugged, but my sword was stuck. Grunting with the effort, I planted a foot on the robot’s chest and pulled again. This time my sword came free. Sparks danced down the steel edge. The electricity made my hands and arms feel tingly all the way up to my elbows. After a few seconds, the strange sensation passed.
The three of us stood there and stared at each other for a minute, eyes wide and breathing hard. My eyes darted down to the wrecked robots and back up to Hondo and Ophelia.
“Did you close your eyes just now?” Hondo asked.
“No,” I replied.
“He did,” Ophelia said. “I saw it.”
“Here’s some free advice, man,” Hondo said. “Don’t close your eyes in the middle of a battle.”
Hondo led us to a big, golden slab of a door. It was flush with the walls and could have blended in were it not for the lack of decoration on the plain door’s surface.
There was no obvious way to open the door, control panel or otherwise.
“Well… poop.” Hondo said. He peeled off his mask and studied the door.
“Um… what?” Ophelia asked.
“It’s locked,” Hondo said. “I was hoping it would be open. I’m not sure I know how to open it.”
“Poop,” I agreed.
“I don’t know what that word means,” Ophelia said. “Can you… shoot the door open?”
Hondo shrugged and raised his gun and let a short blast fly. The little red burst of light bounced off the wall and nearly vaporized Ophelia. The former queen shrieked and threw herself to the ground.
“I should shoot you for that,” Ophelia said in a low, dangerous growl. “but I suppose it was basically my idea.”
“Opening door with the pistol,” Hondo said. “We’ll mark that one down as ‘probably not’.
“Now what?” I asked.
“Backup plan?” Hondo replied.
“You have a backup plan?” Ophelia asked.
“I do now, I just made one up. Fetch me an Endman. No, that one.” He pointed at the one with its head intact.
Ophelia and I hauled the robot over and Hondo removed a panel on the back of its head and began fiddling with wires.
It gave an angry buzz like a hive of bees, then a cheerful beeeep! and the great door slid aside with a sound like the distant rumble of a thunderstorm. A bright room with five tall, bronze plinths lay within.
“More Endmen!” Ophelia cried, reflexively launching an arrow at one. It bounced off harmlessly as before.
“You might want to stop wasting those,” Hondo said, calmly raising his pistol. We backpedaled into the hallway, Hondo to the left side of the door, Ophelia and I to the right.
I’d caught a glimpse of two more of the robots. Hondo was hastily pulling his makeshift mask back up over his face. This done, he waved a hand toward the Endman, then used two fingers to mimic walking, then made a bang-bang kind of motion with his gun.
Ophelia and I just stared.
“What?” Ophelia asked, too loud.
“Let them come to us,” he whispered.
We didn’t have to wait long. The first one scurried out in a frenzy, eyes darting back and forth. I realized we were in Hondo’s line of fire and gave her a push. We moved away from the wall as three blasts from Hondo’s laser pistol fried the Endman’s head, chest, and the air where I’d been standing.
The second one crept along more carefully. It stopped at the entryway, taking in the wreckage of its three ruined companions. Hondo leaned out and fired his pistol at it.
Or tried to.
A dry, metallic click echoed through the big corridor.
“Well… crud.” Hondo threw the depleted gun at the robot and ducked back into the hall. The pistol clanked uselessly off the robot and clattered to the floor.
Sensing its advantage, the robot lurched after Hondo at top speed. I closed my eyes and swung. I had already found a weak point in the creature’s armor, and I aimed for it again, bringing my sword down on the Endman’s neck.
Sparks flew, but the creature descended on Hondo, intent on its prey. My blade had left a mark, but my strike had fallen short of a killing blow. I took a deep breath and swung again, managing to keep my eyes open this time. More sparks. The Endman turned on me, raising claws that would tear me open.
I felt something bristly brush my cheek. Thwack! An arrow hit the gap in the Endman’s neck. The red lights in its eyes went out, and the creature dropped, falling on Hondo, who had fallen to the floor.
“Ow,” he complained, struggling under the weight of the robot.
I glanced back at Ophelia, who lowered her bow and nodded at me. “Nice shot,” I told her. She’d had to fire the arrow so close it had almost hit me instead.
“Glad I didn’t miss,” she replied. We helped Hondo up. His ribs and belly were beginning to bruise up, but he didn’t seem too badly hurt.
“On with the show, I suppose?” Hondo said.
We stepped back into the Vault. The five plinths—short metal columns—were the only thing in the room. They were all laid out in a line in the middle of the chamber. Beams of light shot from the ceiling to their tops. Each beam of light was a different color. Blue, green, red, yellow, and white.
And within each beam of light floated a single Moonstone.
I found myself drawn to the red beam, which lay in the center. I studied the Moonstone inside. Smaller than my fist and slightly angular, it almost looked like a large, blunt-ended arrowhead.
Ophelia had stopped halfway into the room. She tugged on her quiver and fingered each arrow, counting softly to herself. “Five left,” she said aloud. “Perfect.”
“Why is that perfect?” I asked, glancing at the Moonstone before me. “Where do these lead?” I asked, immediately distracted from Ophelia’s strange behavior by the arrowhead-shaped rocks.
“The distant past,” she replied. “They’re the strongest Moonstones I ever commissioned.”
“But I need to go to the future.” I felt my heart sink. I’d come all this way for nothing. “I thought you said we’d be going to the future.”
“Nope,” she replied. “Actually I just said I was taking you to the Moonstone lab, and we’ve already been there.” She was right. I’d just heard what I wanted to hear, and like a fool I’d never stopped to question any of it.
“Well then let’s go back,” I said. “Moonstones leading to the past are useless to me. We got what you wanted. Now it’s my turn.”
“Why don’t I leave you kids to figure this out,” Hondo said, and he turned suddenly and walked away.
“Hey, wait!” I said, but I didn’t know why. He was the whole reason I was in this mess. What was there to say?
I grabbed the Moonstone in front of me, pulling it out of the light.
“Prometheus, no!” Ophelia cried, too late.
An alarm sounded. Hondo stopped in the doorway and tilted his head back, sighing. “Poop.”
“Poop,” I agreed.
“You keep saying that word,” Ophelia said. She was hurriedly grabbing the other four stones. “I don’t know what it means!”
“Can we run now and poop later?” Hondo asked. “Wait, that didn’t—. Run now, and talk later!”
And then he booked it out the door.
I raced after him. I could hear Ophelia’s boots behind us. We tore back into the first hallway, the exit right in front of us. It was blocked by the bulky body of an Emissary, who had lowered itself on its black tentacles to squeeze into the doorway. It let out a horrible screech. The air filled with static electricity. I could feel the hair on my arms stand up. It was about to hit us with a burst of electricity.
The robot exploded. Tiny bits of debris bounced off our chests, but nothing big enough to cause any real harm. Ink appeared in the entry a moment later.
“Good to see you, noble friend!” Ink replied.
“Likewise!” I said.
Ophelia had dropped back and knelt with her legs tucked under her body. She had the five arrows and the four moonstones arrayed before her, along with several short strands of twine.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Hold on,” she said.
“We have to go back to the lab,” I told Ink. “These Moonstones aren’t what we need.”
“Perhaps we should have asked before we set out after them,” he replied.
“Yeah, I just got caught up in everything. I never thought to question what we were doing.” Rushed in again, like the old Prometheus. Exactly what I’d sworn I would stop doing.
He nodded. An arrow flew clumsily across the corridor and thudded into the salamander’s chest. With a look of shock frozen on Ink’s face, he vanished from sight.
“What?” I asked, the word bursting out of me in surprise.
I turned to see Ophelia, still kneeling with bow in hand. She had tied Moonstones to her arrows and used one to send Ink… where? When?
“I’m sorry, Prometheus,” she said, pointing an arrow at me. “You can’t go to the future yet.”
“You’re telling me the End is holding your future self prisoner?” I asked.
“Not exactly. I’m not a prisoner in the future . . .” Hondo said. “I’m just not free to leave.”
“Sounds like a prisoner to me,” Ink told him.
“Does this make sense to anyone?” Rainsong asked. “Because I am completely lost.”
“I came here with two versions of the same man,” I said. The concept was so strange to think about. An older version of Hondo had tricked us all into coming to the Pitworld.
Everyone was quiet, no doubt puzzling over how that was even possible. Thanks to the confusion of time travel, a person could be in two places at once.
Or three, I thought. In my head there were three versions of Hondo now. The kid who had once been my best friend, the man who had betrayed me at Frostbane, and Commander Brink, who had seemed like a good man until we’d gotten into the Pit, and I’d learned he’d lied to us.
“You’re your own doom,” I said. “Why would you do it? Why bring yourself here?”
“It’s what I always did . . . was going to do. It was inevitable. You can’t change the past, and for me it was the past and the future. Set in stone.”
“Yeah, that’s a crap answer,” I replied, trying, and failing. to keep my anger in check. “Why did you do it? You escaped this mess, and you come right back? That’s crazy.”
“I believe in the End,” Hondo said, a hint of zeal creeping into his voice. “Possibly even more so in the future than I do now. I’ll admit, right now I’d be tempted to leave and never look back, but in a few years from now I guess I get over my doubts.”
“This is very weird,” Rainsong said. “I don’t understand anything anyone is saying.”
“I was born on the Roseworld. When I was fairly young, a man appeared, claiming to be my long-lost uncle. My mother had passed away when I was young, so my dad bought it because there was no one around to dispute Future Me’s lies. When this so-called uncle put the expedition together, it seemed like the internship would be a great opportunity,”
He looked at the ground, studying his bare, dirty feet. “So great I decided to share it with my friends.”
“This is all very weird,” Rainsong said again.
“Are you satisfied now?” Hondo asked. His voice was flat. If he felt any emotion over his strange fate, he wasn’t betraying it now. Beyond the devotion he showed toward the End, he didn’t seem to feel anything at all.
“I suppose,” Ophelia said with a shrug. She glanced at me to see if I objected. I shrugged back. “What’s the best way to get into the pyramid?” she asked.
“I’ve got a plan for that,” Hondo said. “Three of us will create a diversion to distract the Emissaries, and three of us will sneak into the ship and find the Moonstones.”
“How do we decide who does what?” Rainsong asked. “I want a spot on the non-suicide mission.”
“Which one is the suicide mission, noble friend?” Ink asked. It sounded like a genuine question. Ink didn’t seem to have a problem taking on giant evil robots.
“That Emissary nearly killed us all before,” Rainsong said. “What’s different this time? Other than there being more of them?”
“More of them,” Hondo agreed. “Plus better armor plating and weaponry, advancements made in the last hundred years or so.”
“I have a plan for that,” Ophelia said. She reached into her quiver. “Explosive arrows. These should give us a chance against the robots.” She pulled an extra bow and five strange arrows out of her quiver and handed them to Rainsong.
“I’m in,” Rainsong said, clutching the bow close to his body as though he wanted to hug it, his eyes lighting up.
“Careful with those arrows,” Ophelia warned. Instead of the standard points, they had tips like thin sausages, long and tubular. “Those tips will blow up.”
Rainsong held the weaponry a little looser and a lot more cautiously.
“Okay, here’s what we’ll do,” Hondo said. “Prometheus, the Queen, and I will sneak inside while your band of freaks makes noise and kills Emissaries.” He waved a hand to indicate Ink, Rainsong, and Gareth.
“Yes!” Gareth shouted. “At last, a true test of our capacities!”
We shushed the robot, glancing around to make sure no one—or no thing had heard him.
“I believe we are up to the task,” Ink said. “I have been hoping for a rematch. I will not make the same mistakes I made last time.”
Rainsong cracked his neck, the red plume on his helmet waving. “Yep,” was all he said, face set in a grim smile.
What odd friends I’ve found, I thought. Not only willing to enter battle for me, but excited about it.
I wished I could share their enthusiasm.
The dread I’d felt on seeing the pyramid earlier increased every second. You’re being paranoid, I told myself, but I couldn’t help feeling like this was the end. Like reaching the edge of a cliff, this was a tipping point. You either jumped, or you didn’t. And when you jumped . . .
You either died, or you didn’t.
- - -
Ink took me aside as we walked toward the hulking spaceship. Dead leaves and branches crunched underfoot. “I wonder, noble apprentice, if I might borrow that device you wear on your hand?”
I glanced down at my gauntlet. I often forgot I was wearing it, usually until I was in a life or death situation and needed it.
I hated the idea of giving it up, of not having it when that need arose.
“I don’t know if it will work for you,” I said hesitantly. I still didn’t fully understand the technology. Obtained in what had seemed like a pile of junk, it had saved my life more times than I could count. I had a feeling I hadn’t fully unlocked its power yet.
“You do not have to,” Ink said. “But I feel it may give us an edge in what may prove a very difficult battle. These servants of the End are tough. I would like to enter combat with more than simple steel.”
I was being selfish, I knew. I peeled off the gauntlet and handed it over. The glove fit loosely on the salamander’s slim fingers.
“Thank you, noble apprentice,” he said, wiggling his fingers.
“Will that throw off your sword grip?” I asked, hating the hopeful note in my voice; the wish that he would remove the glove in distaste and hand it back to me.
“No,” Ink replied. “Part of samurai training is learning to use both hands with skill. I will, at some point, need to teach you to use both hands. Injury or circumstances can prevent one from being able to use a single hand or arm. In life we must learn to be flexible and adapt to whatever circumstances come our way.”
I would have to be flexible myself and hope that a sword would be enough to get me in and out of the pyramid.
The lights at the base of the pyramid were growing brighter. We would need to be careful soon to avoid any Emissaries.
“Oh no,” Hondo said.
“What now?” Rainsong asked.
“Look how clean the landing field is,” Hondo said. “Normally there’d be a mess of smaller ships and supplies. They’ve already pulled all that stuff in.
“So?” I asked.
“So the ship is ready to launch! We need to hurry!”
“I suppose this is where we split up,” Ink said.
Ophelia nodded. “Good hunting,” she told the warriors. Rainsong drew his bow, and Ink laid a hand on his sword hilt.
“Glorious battle!” Gareth cried.
“Yes, ‘glorious battle,’ you clanking fool!” Rainsong said. “Now shut up, so it doesn’t come before we’re ready for it!”
Ink, Rainsong, and Gareth hustled off. They were going to veer right, while we would veer left. I watched the three retreating forms, thinking about my gauntlet and wondering what I would do if I needed it.
- - -
There weren’t any good words to do the pyramid justice. It was truly massive on a scale like nothing I’d yet seen in all my travels. The Palace of the Ancients on Senna had seemed mountainous, but even that great fortress would have been dwarfed by the pyramid spaceship.
It hulked hundreds of stories into the air, rising up and up to dizzying heights. The thought of searching the whole thing for a handful of little rocks filled me with dismay.
Hondo, Ophelia, and I stood in a little copse of trees just a few hundred yards from the ship, near one of its immense corners. Our trio of warriors was waiting at the opposite corner of the ship, preparing to wreak havoc on the Emissaries guarding the ship. I’d seen them slip behind the ruins of an old building.
Hondo sniffed the air. “Smell that?” he asked. “They’ve fueled up recently. Definitely ready for launch. If we don’t hurry, it might take off with us on board!”
“Where’s it going?” I asked.
“You don’t want to know,” he said.
“That’s not an answer,” I replied.
“Last I heard, they were headed for Earth.”
“What?” I let out the words in a shriek. Startled, Ophelia shoved a hand over my mouth. Her palm was dry and cold against my lips. We watched the closest Emissary. Two of the hulking beasts stood near a tall door.
“Be cool, Theus,” she told me, pulling her hand away. “We can’t risk drawing attention to ourselves.”
“This is Proxima,” Hondo whispered. “Near the star Proxima Centauri? Closest star to our solar system.”
Ophelia had said the Crossroads World was also called Proxima.
“The End is planning to attack Earth?” I asked.
“Theus, remember how I said this was the past for me?” Ophelia said.
I nodded slowly, not liking where this conversation was going.
“The End already conquered Earth.”
I felt like the floor dropped out from under me. Time was set in stone. Hondo had said that. So even though the End’s victory was in the future, it had already happened.
Set in stone.
Even though I’d grown up in a terrible, burned out slum, most of Earth was nice. I’d entertained dreams of returning there someday, rich enough to buy an apartment in one of its big, buzzing cities. No pink dome overhead, just blue sky.
I pictured it crawling with End robots and shivered.
“How far in the future does this happen?” I asked.
“We don’t have time for this,” Hondo said.
“I’m sorry, Theus,” Ophelia told me. She pulled her bow from her quiver and held it ready. “Your questions will have to wait.”
I flexed my naked right hand. I had nothing but a sword now. An explosion blossomed against the night sky, a tiny mushroom cloud that burned against our eyes.
The distant figure of an Emissary reeled, smoke and fire and burning oil leaching from a wound on its side. Metallic screeching tore the quiet night apart. The great, spider-like robots near the door trundled toward the commotion.
“Move!” Hondo said unnecessarily. Ophelia was already dashing across the strip of land between us and the broad ramp that led inside the ship. I tore after them, feeling exposed under the bright lamps strewn about, but none of the End’s servants spotted us.
The distraction had succeeded. I could hear sounds of battle, but I couldn’t see our friends through the haze of smoke; I only spotted silhouettes of the mighty robots.
I stared up at the open doorway. A huge, black square of darkness, an angular black hole. The dread was overwhelming now. I felt an urge to throw up, suddenly nauseated. I forced it down. Hondo and Ophelia were already inside and somehow out of sight.
It occurred to me I was not among friends. I barely knew Ophelia, and my last interaction with Hondo had been a disaster. The people I could really count on—Ink and Rainsong—were risking their lives for me on the other side of the pyramid.
I couldn’t think about that now. I focused on what I needed to do. Find Lena and maybe hurt the End somehow.
Shoving aside all my doubts and second-guesses, I stepped inside the pyramidal spaceship and into darkness.
Hondo groaned and rubbed weakly at his eyes. Dressed in nothing but a pair of shorts, his dark hair was flecked with ice crystals. He began to shiver. He looked older, but nowhere close to the 142 years he should have aged since I’d seen him last.
“When am I?” he asked, reaching feebly for the IV in his left arm, one of several sprouting from each limb, their thin strands running into the pod interior.
“Why?” I asked Ophelia.
“I told you; the council didn’t know what to do with—” the former queen began.
“No,” I interrupted. “Why did you free him? You should keep him locked up.”
“I agree,” Rainsong said. “The last black eye he gave the kid is still healing.”
That was the least of the wounds Hondo had delivered at the Frostbane Pit. I had hoped never to see my old friend again. My former friend. My stomach turned just looking at him.
“You again,” Hondo said to me, his voice hoarse. My companions barely seemed to register with him.
“We need his help,” Ophelia said. “He’s in the league with the End. He might know where my Moonstones have been stashed away.”
“But he’s been in a hyper-napping pod,” Rainsong said. “How should he know anything?”
“The term is hibernation, noble friend,” Ink told the toad.
“He was put in there for causing all this,” Ophelia said. “He might know where the Moonstones wound up.”
“I thought he was in trouble with the End,” I said. “For destroying that Emissary.”
“A trick to gain our trust,” Ophelia replied with clear disgust. “Brink was under orders from the End to destroy that robot. The Emissary was set up. It had no clue its master would betray it like that.”
“You’re one to talk about betrayal,” Hondo said, smirking at the former queen. Coming to his senses, he began to rip out IV lines. “Don’t suppose I could have a blanket? Bit frosty coming out of those pods.”
“Whatever you think you know—” Ophelia began. She’d pulled her bow out of her quiver, I noticed. She was fingering the fletching at the back of an arrow, ready to draw at a moment’s notice.
“Don’t worry,” Hondo said with a wink. “Your secrets are safe with me!” He sucked in a deep breath. “I won’t tell them what you did. I mean, what you’re going to do. Time travel is so disorienting. Our language really wasn’t built for it.”
“You’ll tell me where my Moonstones are?” Ophelia asked.
“This is crazy,” I said. “How can we trust anything he says?”
“What makes you think he knows where the Moonstones wound up, noble friend?” Ink added.
“He probably doesn’t. He’ll say anything to save his own skin I’ll wager,” Rainsong said, pushing his helmet out of his eyes for the hundredth time.
“We’ll run him through and chop him to bits, then tie his corpse to the wall outside as a warning!” Gareth shouted, waving his sword and stomping one foot.
We all stared at the robot for a moment. Hondo swallowed hard, as if afraid we might do just that.
“Would you all shut up a minute?” Ophelia said with a little shiver at the thought of Gareth’s plan, perhaps. “He was caught right in this room. The survivors of my council managed to let me know they caught him sneaking around in here during the city’s fall.”
“I’m not sure that proves he knows anything, or that he’ll help us,” Ink pointed out.
“No, he will. Because Hondo wants to quit and side with us,” Ophelia said.
“I do?” Hondo asked, squinting. He stepped out of the pod, wobbling on unsteady legs. No one made a move to help him. Ophelia nocked an arrow but kept her bow at her knees.
“You do,” Ophelia said, her voice steely. “Because you know it’s your best option.”
“Are you sure?” Hondo asked, wrapping his arms around his chest and shivering. His skin was pale, making the scar across his face stand out sharply. “My life would count for nothing if the End found out. Besides, we’re not exactly buddies.”
“True,” Ophelia admitted. “But you’ve been gone a long time. The End put a price on your head years ago.”
“You’re a terrible liar, dear,” Hondo replied through chattering teeth. “Seriously, could I have a blanket? I can’t help you if I die in your dirty old basement.”
“Fresh out,” she replied, waving a hand at the room around us. Other than the pods themselves, everything was in tattered disarray just like the rest of the city.
“Well I suppose we’re wasting our time,” Ophelia said. “Back on ice you go. For good this time.”
“No,” Hondo said quickly, “Please don’t. I’ll tell you where the Moonstones are. I can lead you right to them. I’ll do it for him.” He didn’t look at me when he said it, but I knew he meant me. For the first time, I noticed what a strong resemblance he bore to his uncle, long-lost Commander Brink. Now that they were almost the same age, he could have been the Commander’s twin, were it not for that awful scar.
“Why?” I asked.
Hondo was carefully studying the wall behind Ophelia. “Revenge wasn’t what I thought it’d be.” His voice was hollow. “There was nothing afterward. I beat you in every possible way. Took everything. And I didn’t feel anything.”
“What have you been up to since?” Ink asked.
“Bit of this, bit of that. I was assigned to keep tabs on the people of Chronos, so I followed them through Skywater and then here to the Crossroads World. I told them I got exiled because of that Emissary I forced Prometheus to destroy, but as you know, that was a trick. I was under orders to destroy him. I used a Moonstone to return to the present not long after I got here. I, of course, found the city had been sacked decades ago. I asked the Emissaries here about it. They told me to mind my own business, then, ironically enough, sent me back in time right to its fall to search for Ophelia’s special supply of Moonstones.
“I was caught in the act, but that was a trick too. The Moonstones were already gone when they found me. I didn’t know I would be saved at the time, but the End must have known about these blasted pods. Surprised no one’s using the rest of them! Good way to save a little time,” he said with a shivery chuckle.
“Of course you wouldn’t know anything about loyalty,” Ophelia said. “My people chose to remain at their posts rather than hide away down here.”
“And how did that end for them?” Hondo asked her with a hard stare.
Ophelia broke gazes first. She still had her bow drawn and dangling. “Enough talk. Let’s get moving. Holding onto her bow with one hand, she held up the arrow she’d had ready, letting Hondo take a good look. “This has your name on it. I’ll be keeping it ready. If you make trouble for us in any way, we’re following the robot’s plan.”
“Noted.” Hondo sighed and looked down at the simple pair of shorts that were his only clothing, then turned his gaze on the ruined room. “I’m really not getting a blanket, am I?”
- - -
We slipped outside through the main entrance. Ophelia didn’t see the point in sneaking back out the way we’d come from. Our footsteps echoed in the dusty foyer, punctuated by the slap of Hondo’s bare feet.
My own feet were just a step above bare. The bottoms of my threadbare socks were mostly holes. I’d lost my shoes two worlds ago and never found another pair. I’d gotten so used to it I often forgot I wasn’t wearing any.
My feet had gotten tougher. What about the rest of me? I wasn’t at all sure about working with Hondo. I’d lost my sister to the future, thanks to him. I found myself looking at the man as we stepped outside. I couldn’t tell if he was sincere, but I didn’t feel any of the hate that had radiated from him like a furnace at the Frostbane Pit.
“I don’t hear anything,” Rainsong said.
“That is not necessarily a good sign,” Hondo said, arms folded tight against his chest to conserve warmth. “I like knowing where those blasted robots are. Don’t let that howling fool you. They can be quiet when they want to be.”
“You still haven’t told us where we’re going,” Ophelia said. “I want to know where you intend to take us.”
“Easier to show you, dear queen,” Hondo said. He pointed at a gap between two buildings. “The last I heard, they were being loaded onto that.”
“No,” Ophelia replied, her voice leaden with dread.
Hondo was pointing at the pyramid we’d seen when we arrived.
“What’s the big deal?” I asked. “It’s a big, black pyramid.”
“Look who’s ready for kindergarten,” Hondo said. “You’ll be graduating to scissors and glue before you know it. That monstrosity is more than just a pyramid.”
“What is it then?” Ink asked.
“A spaceship, of course,” he replied, as if we somehow ought to have figured it out on our own.
“A spaceship? And it’s been sitting here for . . .” I tried to remember how many years Hondo had been asleep. “Forty years?” I guessed.
“Forty-two years, to be precise,” Hondo replied. He ran two fingers down the length of the scar on his chin, a nervous habit I’d never noticed before. “It’s kind of hard to move giant spaceships when they’re broken.”
We moved through the ruined city, back to the outskirts near the Pit we’d arrived through. I could see now that the pyramid wasn’t as dimly lit as I’d first thought. A few weak lights lay scattered near the base, and I spotted the silhouette of an Emissary wandering through, moving like a grotesque insect guarding a hive.
We stopped at the last grassy wall at the edge of the city. There was nothing between us and the pyramid now but the stretch of an empty field.
“How do we get inside?” I asked.
“There’s no cover between here and there,” Ink pointed out. “Nowhere to hide.” The field between the edge of the city and the pyramidal spaceship was just a big, pockmarked expanse of dirt, scrub grass, and vine-choked garbage.
“Don’t expect me to help with that,” Hondo said. “I’m half-naked and still waking up from a forty year nap. I’m not going anywhere near an Emissary.”
“We need more information,” Ophelia said. “Are they repairing the ship? Why leave the Moonstones there for all these years?”
“The End is infinite, or something like it,” Hondo replied. “He doesn’t see time the way we do.”
“What is the End?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Hondo said flatly. “But he’s got power. His reach extends across many worlds. You can’t beat him. You can only . . . delay him. I’m not worried about helping you all because in the end, the End always wins.”
“So you believe in the End even though you’ve never seen him?” I asked.
“Sure. I don’t need to see the emperor to know there’s an empire.”
“How do you talk to him?” Ink asked.
“I suspect you’ll find that out for yourself sooner or later,” he replied. I didn’t like the cryptic answer, but before I could ask what he meant, Ophelia spoke.
“Your buddy the End is going to pay for what he did to my people,” Ophelia said. “I’ll delay his sorry empire right into the ground. With my bare hands if I have to. I don’t care whether you think he’s infinite, or a god, or unbeatable, or whatever. He messed with the wrong queen. The Dawn will prevail.”
Hondo didn’t chuckle or offer a snarky comment like he usually did. He just stared at Ophelia appraisingly and nodded. “Well let’s get you into the pyramid, and we’ll see about all that.”
The dark pyramid dominated the skyline ahead. It was bigger than I’d thought, and further away. I got a deep, almost dizzying sense of dread when I stared at the hulking, angular spaceship.
“Okay, so it was great hearing you ramble about this stupid End moron,” Rainsong said, “but you didn’t actually answer any of Ophelia’s questions.”
Hondo bristled a little at the toad’s insults, but let it slide without comment. “The ship was sabotaged a long time ago, during Chronos City’s fall. I don’t know the particulars.”
There was something shifty about his answer. I didn’t buy it, not fully.
“Our crew,” I said. “Why did the End want our crew?”
Could it be he’d needed them to fix his spaceship? Darkeson had been captured 142 years ago now. What about everyone else? They could have been here, in the present still. Even Darkeson could be here if a Moonstone were used on him.
Hondo flinched but didn’t answer.
“The End needed them to fix his spaceship?” I asked.
“It’s not quite that simple,” Hondo said. “He wanted them for their overall knowledge, not just mechanical know-how.”
“Why would a god need human scientists?” I asked.
“They have insights into modern Earth technology the End was lacking,” Hondo said.
“So you helped him kidnap them,” I said, my hands shaking. I’d thought maybe I could work with Hondo, but the more I thought on all the evil he’d done, the harder it became to swallow. His answer was strange, but it made sense. It explained why the End hadn’t cared about Lena and I. Being just kids, we didn’t have any useful information for the End.
“It’s not that simple,” Hondo said again. “If you knew everything—”
“So tell us,” Rainsong interrupted. “Everything.”
“I can’t,” he replied. “Look, do you want me to take you to the pyramid or not?” he asked with an angry wave toward the giant structure.
“You did take us to the pyramid,” Queen Ophelia said. “Any reason we shouldn’t kill you now and be on our way?”
“You’ll need my help getting inside,” Hondo said. He glanced at me and swallowed. His eyes shifted away before they met mine. “I didn’t bring you this far to watch you die.”
“A minute ago you couldn’t help us,” Rainsong pointed out. “Which is it?”
“I’ve thought it over, and I have a plan,” he replied.
“Tell us everything you know,” Ink said. The salamander was perhaps the only one of us left who could remain calm. I didn’t count Gareth. While silent, the robot was no doubt impatiently awaiting the start of the next battle.
“You know what I know. Most of it,” Hondo swallowed again and rubbed at his old scar.
“Except for one thing,” I said. I could tell he was keeping something from us.
“It’s not important,” Hondo said. “Let’s go.”
“Let us decide that,” Ophelia said. “Tell us, and we can get moving.”
“It’s . . . I’m the Commander.”
“What?” I asked, confused.
“I don’t know exactly how it comes to pass yet, it’s in my future. But someday I’m going to escape this mess and lead a small expedition from the Roseworld. One spaceship called the Endeavor will set out on an off-the-books mission to illegally explore a recently discovered mystery planet.”
“That’s impossible,” I said, confused.
“No, it’s not. I don’t have an uncle. Never did. Didn’t know that until recently.” Hondo still couldn’t meet my gaze. Everyone watched the two of us talk, even more puzzled than I was.
“No, you’re . . . that’s crazy.”
“If only,” Hondo said.
“I can’t accept that,” I said.
“Prometheus, I am Commander Brink.”
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A mysterious world is discovered with a massive, miles-wide pit torn through one continent. The planet is strewn with the remains of a fallen civilization. What happened to the locals, and what were they digging for so desperately? A young intern assigned to the first expedition into the Pit will be among the first to find out...
J.L. Ender was born on planet Earth, third planet in the Sol system, which is located in a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Ender enjoys coffee, Mexican food, and devastating robot apocalypses. He has tamed a member of the local wildlife, a thing called a dog. In a fit of confusion he named it Bear and often finds himself walking the creature.